July 3, 2021 Subject:
This is an odd little quartet of novellas that does not seem to attract much notice in Conrad’s critical heritage.
Three of the four, I have never felt worth re-reading. It is the other one, the shortest and perhaps the slightest, that has somehow lingered in my mind, like cigar-smoke, inviting regular revisits, so that I have come to know it intimately - ‘The Partner’.
I note that it dates from 1910 when he was writing at his best but still struggling to earn. And there is a good deal of Conrad about the story, not only because he is part-narrator. So, for example, it all starts in a small, shabby-genteel hotel, where nothing much happens. Conrad’s life was largely spent in such places, when he wasn’t at sea, chatting to odd characters like the ‘imposing ruffian’ of the present tale, which gradually emerges out of their conversation.
Two brothers each find themselves struggling in their different careers. George runs an import firm in the City, where he is not quite the entrepreneur he imagines. Captain Harry is a popular merchant officer, still stuck on sailing ships, when he should long since have gone in for steam (touch of Conrad there too.) A small legacy seems to offer new opportunities and they agree to invest in a business partner, a forceful American called Cloete with a finger in many pies, chiefly patent medicines - a dodgy game in those days, which ought to have served as a warning.
The new partner fails to perform, and tries to sell the brothers on a desperate rescue scheme, involving an insurance scam on Harry’s ship. The brothers angrily refuse any such unethical practice, but Cloete wears down their resistance, discreetly hinting that George’s glamorous wife is showing signs of dissatisfaction at their modest standard of living. And he assures them that he can handle the job himself, because he has already selected an experienced seaman, down on his luck, who’ll do the dirty work for a modest fee.
We can’t reveal more, but the quickening tempo in the second half leads to an astonishing climax. Unfortunately novellas depend more heavily on dialogue than novels do, and dialogue was always Conrad’s weakest point, partly because he didn’t speak English until well into his twenties, and partly because he seems not to have had a musical ear. But the characterisation and the action more than compensate for this.